Conquering the Impossible (31 page)

BOOK: Conquering the Impossible
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In short, I was negotiating terrain for which my equipment was no longer suitable. I thought of calling Jean-Philippe and asking him to bring back my winter equipment, but I decided to wait. I wanted to make some forward progress, in the hope that the ocean water would clear up a little farther along. Even when Cathy informed me that the ice was compact and solid all the way to Cape Barrow—including along the shoreline—I still hesitated. The ice breaks up rapidly during this season. The ice “rots” invisibly, and it might very well break away from the mainland from one week to another, or one month to the next, or just about any day now. It was impossible to say for sure.

In the end, I kept the kayak. It looked like that was the right decision because the currents had broken the ice up in places around Hershel Island, opening a passageway along the coastline. Thanks to the breakwater effect of the ice farther out, the sea was smooth as glass to the immense joy of this paddler. I had no idea how long or how far these ideal conditions were likely to continue, but they only encouraged me in my decision to remain in summer mode.

After Hershel Island I began to see sandbars just breaking the surface. Beyond them the ice was still solid, but between these sandbars and the coastline, the water from the mouths of two large rivers a bit farther ahead had melted the ice. I zipped along as if I was paddling across a swimming pool. That day I covered about forty miles.

The sandbars generally extended the length from one cape to the next, running along the coast at a constant distance—except when the navigable corridor was only a few yards across or when there was a break in the coastline, forming a lagoon between coastline and sandbar that might be many miles wide.

When the sandbars and shallows began to encroach on the mainland, I was increasingly obliged to haul my kayak up onto the shore and drag it over the ice for a way before I could find another passable stretch of water. This was exhausting work, and it usually cut my mileage back down to about twelve and a half per day.

The water itself was sometimes so slushy that I couldn't drag my paddle through it, but not yet sufficiently frozen over for me to be able to hike over it. In such situations I would have to beach my kayak again to get past the obstacles. When I was forced onto the shore, I would bog down in a mushy liquid snow. I began to truly understand that I was here at the worst time of the year.

*   *   *

Nevertheless I made progress, at the price of fewer and fewer hours of sleep, alternating between paddling, trekking, climbing, and jumping in this seemingly endless labyrinth of ice and water. On the morning of June 28, at exactly eight in the morning, I got out of my kayak to climb to the copper marker that marked the boundary between the Yukon province of Canada and the state of Alaska. I photographed this solitary monument, built in the middle of nowhere, from every angle. In the small symbolic turret next to the benchmark, a family of seabirds had built a nest and were crying out in alarm as I drew near them.

Canada was behind me. I had done it, I had crossed it!

Since there was no one there to congratulate me, I decided I might as well press on. I climbed back down to my kayak and, with a triumphant paddle stroke, I entered Alaska by sea. Nothing could stop me now. Not even the fragments of ice and the slushy summer snow that were doing their best to slow me down.

I hugged the coastline of the North Slope, an immense swampy tundra that extended more or less the length of Alaska's northern coastline. This time of the year, all the birds of the Far North and beyond met up there for a symphony of chirps and warbles. The snow geese streaked across the sky in long lines in close formation, flocks of thousands of Arctic ducks sailed overhead like banners in the sky, and families of swans crowded the shores. This was the season of courting dances and mating, of the great congregation of the species with a spectacular backdrop and not a single human disturbing the vista except for me.

When suddenly it seemed as if the earth was moving, I realized that I was witnessing the annual migration of the Porcupine Herd, the largest herd of caribou ever observed—120,000 animals all heading together to Canada. The procession extended from one end of the horizon to the other. I had never seen anything like it!

The North Slope is like that—a never-ending spectacle, insanely beautiful.

*   *   *

I hurried on toward the village of Kaktovik, which lies a little farther along the coast on Barter Island. I had not planned to stop there, but I hoped I would have a chance to repair my rudder and my float arm there. Moreover, since I had not seen a living soul since Tuktoyaktuk, I wouldn't mind catching a glimpse of a few human faces.

I raised my sail again and made twenty-five miles in one day. The wind grew stronger, and my daily distances climbed to thirty miles, which I achieved by paddling and sailing from twelve to sixteen hours a day under a sun that never set.

Four days after entering Alaska, I fought one last battle against the ice that continued to surround Kaktovik, and I finally hauled my kayak up the little beach that serves the village as a harbor. Facilities were rudimentary in this tiny village where, for lack of running water, residents still used buckets for toilets.

“Where you come from, like that?” yelled a man who was busy hauling a boat up onto the beach.

“From Tuktoyaktuk!”

“Impossible, with all that ice!” he replied. So I gave him a brief account of my most recent adventures, and I asked him if he could show me the way to the house of a friend of the Norwegians I had met near Cambridge Bay. I hoped to ask their friend for a place to stay. Unfortunately, the house was locked up, and the owner had left on an expedition along the Colville River.

Leonard, the man I met on the beach, and his girlfriend, Caroline, generously offered to take me in. The next morning, a little repair shop that fixed road-maintenance vehicles helped me to get my kayak back into shape. The owner, a master handyman, carved me a new rudder out of a piece of sheet metal and made me a new float arm out of a length of pipe.

On the fourth of July I celebrated Independence Day with residents who were handing out Coca-Cola and hot dogs in the streets of Kaktovik.

The next day, forty-eight hours after I arrived in town, I picked up my refurbished kayak and went back to sea after informing local authorities that I had entered American territory.

*   *   *

To the west of Barter Island, the water was partly clear for about twenty miles, and then it was frozen again. I set up camp on the ice after a day wending my way among the blocks of ice. The next day things looked bad because the fragments of pack ice were too small to walk over, too big to push aside. I retreated to the beach and shifted back and forth between sand and ice, depending on the state of the terrain. Most of the time I used my kayak as a sled, which didn't help the rudder any. When I was able to cut over dry land, I would roll my boat over lengths of driftwood, much like the builders of the Egyptian pyramids. It was daunting labor, and it didn't yield much speed. I was progressing at a rate of less than one mile per hour.

When I was fifty miles from Prudhoe Bay, I noticed a pair of barracklike tents, surrounded by tools and oil-exploration equipment, evidently the property of an oil company. I arrived, soaked, at two in the morning after a lengthy battle with the pack ice that resulted in numerous plunges into the water. Despite the midnight sun, there was a light on inside.

I yelled, “Is anyone there?”

Three round-eyed, tousled heads poked out of the tent.

“Who are you? What are you doing here?”

The three men were ornithologists who were studying the effects of oil exploration on the nesting of birds. Their names were Eric, Craig, and Craig. They helped me repair my rudder and offered me a camp cot for the night.

When I opened one eye in the middle of the night, a violent wind blowing out of the north had shoved a veritable ice field against the shoreline. It would be impossible to make it all the way to Prudhoe Bay hauling my kayak over those blocks of ice.

The next day nothing had changed. I took advantage of the opportunity to go for a hike on the tundra. My three guides, excited by my accounts of my adventures, reciprocated by showing me all the secrets of Arctic birds, including the habits and customs of each species.

I was especially astonished by the amazing habits of the eider ducks. I knew that in summer eider ducks migrated to the Far North to lay their eggs. I also knew that the female eider ducks shed their feathers and used them to keep their young warm—hence the trademark Eider for my ultraprotective insulating winter suits. But no one seemed to know where the mysterious eiders traveled for the winter. Only recently had someone attached homing devices to a few individual ducks and discovered their incredible secret. When winter comes, they do not fly south. Instead they settle on the water, right in the middle of the Bering Strait! There, millions of them cluster together side by side in a compact mass, and they prevent the ocean from freezing over with their own body heat and the incessant paddling of their webbed feet. They dive to the ocean bottom—they are capable of descending to depths of one-hundred feet—to catch shrimp and mollusks. And this goes on all winter long! During that whole time, the enormous quantity of duck droppings enriches the seabed, and thus helped to nourish their marine food sources—a perfect natural cycle!

*   *   *

The ice was showing no signs at all of opening up, so I decided to start off again despite everything. Eric and the two Craigs recommended that I warn British Petroleum that I would be arriving in Prudhoe Bay, where the company had built a huge car-accessible causeway jutting out into the ocean about five miles. That jetty, whose pipelines hooked up with the main Alaskan pipeline, was called Endicott, and access to the area around it was strictly prohibited without special authorization.

I was determined to get a permit for myself. So I called a certain “Joe,” who was in charge of security for the oil company in Anchorage. He refused my request brusquely. I told him that my kayak was damaged, that it needed urgent repairs, and that I needed supplies. If I was forced to choose between the danger of dying at sea and the risk of arrest, I would land on Endicott property, with or without his permission. I added that my crew was going to meet me in Prudhoe Bay and that it needed to have authorization to meet me on the jetty. I also mentioned that I was planning to alert the press to my arrival, which I thought might give him a little extra incentive.

“Joe” wound up authorizing me to come in. His men would pick me up at the end of the jetty, and they would take me back to the same place when I was ready to leave. However, my crew was forbidden to approach. I asked again, but he wouldn't budge. This obstructionist cop put up a wall of stupidity and treated me like garbage.

*   *   *

I continued to grapple with the pack ice, and the gusty winds made my progress even more difficult. Finally, though, I saw on the horizon the characteristic flame of deep-sea drilling platforms. I had reached the famous causeway.

I climbed up onto it and walked calmly between the pipelines. There was no one in view in any direction. I had just entered a supposedly high-security area, and there wasn't a guard anywhere in sight to ask me who I was.

Finally, I chanced upon a panel with a number to call in case of an emergency, so I got out my satellite phone: “Hi, this is Mike Horn. I'm on the causeway. What are you waiting for? Come on out and arrest me.”

There was panic at the other end of the line: “What? Where are you, exactly? How long have you been there?”

A few minutes later, a team arrived in a truck and picked us up—me and my kayak—and took us back to Prudhoe Bay.

The town was not a town at all, not even a village, but rather a cluster of barracks where about thirty Inuit lived, surrounded by employees of the oil company. A hotel had been built to lodge them, and an airport, served by Alaska Airlines, to bring them in and out. The place was vaguely sinister, and its second name seemed to suit it well: Deadhorse.

There I met up with Jean-Philippe, Sebastian, and Raphaël, who had arrived before me to bring supplies of equipment and food, and to film me as I arrived and left. Sebastian had called the notorious “Joe” to request authorization to travel with the guards who had been sent to pick me up at the end of the causeway. Just long enough to take a few pictures. “No!” the head of security had answered, brusquely. Could he go back with them when they took me back out onto the jetty? Same answer. Sebastian asked if they could meet me somewhere else along the coast. “No!” yelled Joe before hanging up on him.

It was very obviously prohibited to access the sea where the petroleum facilities were located! As for sneaking past security and reaching shore, that was out of the question. There were surveillance cameras and guards all along the coast. If I had managed to slip through the net on the causeway, it was only because I had arrived by sea.

Frustration and anger reigned with my team members. After looking at the matter from every angle imaginable, we finally decided that my three teammates would fly to Nuiqsut, a small village located farther south on the Colville River, and there they would hire an Inuit who would take them in his boat around Prudhoe Bay, and then return along the same path as me. It would take a day. And then they could at least film my arrival … or my virtual arrival.

I carefully “forgot” to report this project to the guy in charge of security at Prudhoe Bay—a warm and understanding fellow, unlike his boss—when he accompanied me back to the end of the jetty.

*   *   *

When I got out to the causeway, though, it was impossible to leave. The wind blew so hard it would have driven my kayak back against the rocks.

Wrapped in my sleeping bag, I waited in the lee of the causeway for the squall to die down. Without having planned to do so, I gave Jean-Philippe, Sebastian, and Raphaël, who had already left Nuiqsut, enough time to catch up with me. Via satellite phone, we arranged to meet up. The next day, without any difficulties, they arrived from the sea at the same place that they had been forbidden to enter, and were thus able to film my “arrival” and follow me for two days.

BOOK: Conquering the Impossible
3.17Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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